Ti West's horror film has the same mischievous spirit that made TWILIGHT ZONE and ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS so fun. It certainly has more in common with a film from William Castle, like HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, than modern spook fests or gore-atoriums. The plot takes time to look at its characters less worried about having a scare every few minutes. In doing so it creates suspense that builds to a compelling conclusion.
Legend has it that the Yankee Pedlar Inn is haunted by the ghost of a spurned bride who committed suicide in one of the rooms. Now the once-grand hotel is set to close. The third floor is already shut down to visitors. Claire (Sara Paxton, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT) and Luke (Pat Healy, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES) are the final two employees. They live in rooms along with the final few guests. Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis, TOP GUN), an aging actress now on the psychic convention circuit; an angry mother and her young son; and an old man looking to relive his honeymoon are the only paying guests. Luke claims to have seen the ghost and has started a website to cash in on the haunted hotel's notorious reputation. He ropes in the pretty college student into his paranormal investigation, having her take an EVP recording in an effort to capture the things that go bump in the night.
I'm a little scared to talk too directly to what makes the film so very special without giving away it's many surprises and pleasures. Because West takes his time setting up the plot one wonders just where it is going. It is this sense of wonder that drives the plot. Because we wonder where the plot is going, who are the characters we can trust and how will all of these elements come together, the film takes on a believable suspense. In some ways it reminded me of how THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT played out, but it takes it further.
West isn't only interested in doling out scares. During the first act the film almost seems like a Kevin Smith comedy at times. He even plays some of his scares for laughs a lot like Sam Raimi. Sometimes it touches on camp, which is distracting, but it never kills the credibility. West shows his skills at handling the tone quite nicely and slowly replaces the humor with true dread. The pacing and character development really bring us emotionally into the final moments where the characters find themselves in real danger.
What really comes as a surprise is the relationship between Claire and Luke. There is at least a good 10 years difference between them. The age difference is unique in how the relationship plays out. Luke is a kind of a nerd who uses sarcasm and cynicism as a shield. Claire is an innocent, open-minded girl who enthusiastically joins in Luke's ghost hunting. The simple act of being taken seriously makes Luke develop feelings for her, however she does not look at the older man in the same way.
Leanne is a nice supporting character in how she adds mystery to the story. As a washed up actress, she helps accentuate the pop culture love of the main characters. Her new career as a psychic makes her a joke, but she knows how they look at her and doesn't stand for it. As things begin to get scary, we begin to wonder whether or not she's a fraud or the real deal. This uncertainty creates unbalance as certain characters become more trusting of her. There is a tradition in horror films to make us wonder who the hero or villain is, but so often it's not done very well, that is not the case here.
I will note that the film takes a little time to get going especially compared to other modern horror films. However, it's definitely worth keeping with it because the buildup really pays off in the end. I really like horror film like this where you get in the minds of the characters. As in real life, our greatest fears live within our own heads.
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